What Does It Mean to Be

A Calculated Life

By Anne Charnock

Published 2013

Read 3/12/2017

I’m not sure when I bought this book for my Kindle, but likely shortly after I got it in 2014.  I certainly don’t remember why I bought it, but likely it showed up on the screen and I was compelled for some good reasons to purchase it.  Fortunately I bought this book before I reigned in the tendency to purchase ebooks in such a manner.  Much more importantly, however, it’s fortunate that 47North, a publishing arm of Amazon, saw this book after it had first been self-published as an e-book and then as a paperback and decided that much more of the reading population ought to get to read it than might find it otherwise.

I started reading this book without knowing anything about it or its author.  I actually really like starting books under these circumstances although to increase the probability of it being a useful journey I generally reserve this approach for recommendations from reliable sources, specifically a few friends with whom I spend many hours discussing books.   Although this book didn’t come from one of my reliable sources, I heartily endorse it for others.

My experience with this book was not dissimilar from my experience with “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.   In each case, you are introduced to a character doing what seems to be a usual type of job living a usual nondescript life.  In both cases the novel slowly unwinds a different reality.  In this book the job is to find relationships between things so predictive algorithms can be developed.  We slowly learn the algorithms aren’t just about predicting trends in financial market but also such events as violent acts and very unexpected measurable variables such as wind speed.  The goal is to develop predictive algorithms of value to someone or some organization that will purchase it, although how they exploit it is apparently not of great concern to the employer and certainly not the to the analyst.  The person doing the job isn’t actually a human being but rather a “stimulator” created, programmed, and made available via contract to her employer by the Constructor.  Jayna is a version which has benefited from learnings from earlier versions, some of which are still functioning in different roles under contract to various employers.

In each case, the world around the characters is a not inconceivable and doesn’t even seem terribly distant in time from our own.  This characteristic is what, for me, separates “speculative fiction” from “fantasy/science fiction”.  Margaret Atwood has spun a number of terrifically well-written novels in this genre and Anne Charnock is certainly committed to playing in this territory and does it very nicely with this offering.

The plane that both Ishiguro routinely visits and Charnock’s “A Calculated Life” is now on is the one in which the primary questions being addressed are “what does it mean to be x” and “what role does memory play in our being x” (x=human or otherwise).    Not surprisingly, perhaps, these authors help us realize answers to these questions are ones they don’t claim to own and ones that will keep us reading great literature as we continue to consider them.  Like “Never Let Me Go”, in “A Calculated Life” the plot evolves slowly.  Some readers have found this trying.  I think it’s a helpful attribute because the questions being poised are profound and require slow careful consideration which is supported by the slow speed of the novels.

I will not further compare and contrast these books as they do take different trajectories with their characters and plots and to say more there will further spoil it for readers.  Take the dive yourself and consider “what does it mean to be x” (human or otherwise).

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